Introduction:

The hospitality industry is fast growing into one of the most popular sectors of economy and at present the tourism industry in particular has become a major contributor of economy for many countries. Because of the high demand for tourism services, there has been an increase in the number of operators in the sector. This has made the industry more competitive and challenging that stakeholders in the industry have to change their focus from service provision to the inner details with quality of service as the overriding factor. This paper will discuss the findings of a virtual shopping spry that were intended to gather valuable data on the level of services within two of the leading firms in the tourism and hospitality industry. The paper will also make recommendations of the appropriate level of services and quality measures that could make a hospitality firm more competitive and attract more customers. The paper will use both theory and practices-based mystery shopper techniques. The paper will also assess the effectiveness of the mystery shopper techniques I evaluating quality of services at the firms (Bryman & Bell 2007, p.294).

                                                                     Discussion:

Mystery shopper technique is a very important strategy in evaluating the quality of services at a firm and helps in improving the quality of services. This is a powerful marketing research tool that can create a difference in an organization by changing the marketing strategies and approaches at a firm. This tool particularly determines the quality of customer services and front office operations by helping firms get direct information from individuals posing as potential customers and as such this is the most effective tool in collecting data that can assist organizations improve the quality of their services (Bryman & Bell 2007, p.294).

Thomas cook and Thomson are major players in the UK hospitality industry and present the best firms in the industry. It’s however worth noting that the growth of the tourism industry has led to the emergence of other firms. It’s estimated that there are over 206,000 outlets in the UK market with more than 2 million direct employments provided by the hospitality industry hence this sector has demonstrated high levels of competition that has changed the dimension of the operations and brought focus to the quality of services. Using the mystery shopper technique an observational visit was made to the two firms to evaluate the level of services and determine the company with the best quality of customer services. Here is the profile of the two companies:

Thomas Cook:

This company is one of the oldest in the UK hospitality and operates a whole range of segments within the industry. The company has particularly gained popularity in its leisure travel operations. The company provides holiday services to its customers across the world and currently boosts of over 23.6 million customers. The company’s main channels include the call centers, travel stores and a highly customized website that allows customers to make bookings and also get information about products and services. The brands operated by the group include direct holidays, Thomas cook, club 18-30, Neilson, Sentido, Neckermann, Oger tours, Jet tours, Fun sun, Ving, ALBA tours and Condor among others. The company also runs a complementary insurance cover that protects all its customers against accidents and theft. The group has flexible payment methods and allows its customers to make payments for the services suing credit cards. The company operations span from UK, India, North America, Middle East, Ireland and the rest of Europe hence it’s a truly global company. The London based company was founded in the year 1841.

Thomson:

This is another UK based firm that facilitates travel and leisure activities in across the world. The company has more than 18000 staff across the world to help in connection travel services. The company was established in the year 1965 but has made tremendous achievements in its quest to be the best firm in the hospitality industry. The company also provides holidaying services with a whole range of destinations for the customers. The company has strived to set itself aside and achieve product differentiation with brands such as Thomson couples, sensatory, Thomson Cruises and family resorts. The company has the best set of holiday services and according to the surveys they conduct on the customers, 94% have an excellent rating for their holidays. The company operates 650 stores across the UK and a highly developed website with over 2000 destination and hotel videos hence the customers have a lot to choose from. The firm also has connection services in all the 23 UK airports. One of the most significant aspects of the company is its planning guide through my Thomson that helps customers to plan and get all the information they need for a particular holiday (Thomson.co.uk).

 

From the two profiles, the two companies are truly global and have made tremendous gains in their quest to achieve their objectives in the hospitality industry. It’s however worth noting that the hospitality industry is becoming very competitive and with more informed customers, the companies cannot afford to make mistakes in all aspects of their operations. The next part of this paper will focus on the findings of the mystery shopping spry done on the two companies to determine the level and quality of services offered (Thomson.co.uk).

 

Findings:

 

Thomson:

This company boosts of the most comprehensive website and as such we were able to get all the information we needed from the website. One is able to get all information about holidays, cruises, hotels, destinations, villas, flights and deals. The website also has a payment capability and hence we were able to assess the products and make a decision. This was a big achievement for the company as customers are able to transact in any location so long as there is internet connection. The company was impressive in its deals section that provides the different prices available for all their services offered. The company has also log in capabilities that allows customers to manage their various services and track the progress of the services requested. In addition, the customers are able to subscribe for regular updates on information about new offers. The payment section was quite flexible with different credit cards such as master and delta among others applicable. The company has therefore utilized technological capabilities to improve the quality of its services as well as customer experience. The key observation from the website is that a customer is able get virtually all the information and the different choices within the segments provided a wonderful experience for the customers.

The firm also operates over 650 stores across UK and as such we had to visit one of the branches in Uxbridge to get a real-life experience on how the firm conducts customer services within the stores. Our holiday specifications were a travel to Turkey for two weeks half board w which provides bed, dinner and breakfast for my Friend while I chose to travel to Tunisia for the same period of time with the same specifications. Our intended departure was mid June this year. Our first within the store was a very business work environment with high number of clients waiting to be served. The staff at the store seemed to be serving a large number of customers. It however took us only ten minutes to be served. This was a real show of efficient customer service and we were very happy at the turn around time despite the large number of customers. This was also a demonstration of that the company attracts large number of customers which shows high quality services that has led to customer retention. We encountered a gentleman who warmly greeted us and interactively took us through the products and services relevant to our holiday trip. He was able to show as the pictures of the destinations in the two countries and the hotels together with the prices. He was also able to provide additional information which we did not explicitly asked for just to help us understand the two countries. We were able to use the information provided to reach at 700 pounds according to our budget. One of the most interesting things is that he was able to take us through other offers which could match less our budget and could give us the opportunity to save. The customer service was fantastic and the gentleman remained charismatic, optimistic and quite engaging throughout our session.

It’s however worth noting that the building did not reflect the kind of service which we were able to receive. Our expectation was to find a building with quality paintings with proper repairs for worn out parts as this could clearly demonstrate what we could expect even before engaging the front office staff but this did not happen. The firm needs to improve on the building layout with proper paintings showing hospitality colors. The quality of service was very high and we were really satisfied with the general customer service offered (Thomascook.com).

Thomas Cook:

This is one of the oldest companies in the industry with more than 100 years of experience in hospitality management. The company a high-quality website that showcases all the products and services offered within the segments in the group. Just like the first company we visited. Thomas Cook had all the products ready in the website with online payment capabilities. The company has established itself as a price leader hence most of its services are offered at a lower price compared to the competitors. We were really attracted by the 20% discount for all orders made online. The company boosts of a whole range of services and comes out as the best in terms of product diversification. The most amazing aspect of the company was its ability to enhance client interaction through social interactive channels such as facebook, twitter; google plus, youtube and blogs which allows for quick feedback and response hence the company will be able to use the technological capability to manage customer relationships.

The company allows for a whole range of payment options including credit cards and other online payment systems. The other unque aspect of the company website was a shopping cart that allows the customers to make purchase of other products other than the services provides. The company also runs loyalty programs such as the holiday worth 250 pounds for customers who participate as part of loyalty and customer attraction programs (Stucker, 2005 p.42-50).

A physical visit to one of the company stores provided another experience for us. The company operated big stores but our first experience was a less busy environment with very few customers, infact the staff were just chatting no customers. It took some time before the customer services agents could notice us.

The lady at Thomas Cook used a lot of customer care experience to manage our queries. Although she was not too engaging, she was able to politely handle us. One experience we had with customer care agent for Thomas Cook was the little mention of Prices and the analysis of the budget. This could possibly because of the firm’s price leadership strategies hence they put a lot of emphasis on quality services and not the price they charge. This presented us with a big challenge since we could not plan using our finances. Another surprising experience was the discouragement we got with regards to Tunisia which she considered to be a very difficult place to go out due to the cultural differences. We did not get the opportunity to see the pictures and videos of the destinations as was the case in the first place of visit. Their approach to customer service was very passive as there was total lack of demonstrations on the products on offer. Unlike in the first place of visit where we had journals to get further information regarding the services offered by the company, we did not get the same at Thomas Cook but we were promised that they would be delivered. The general setting was amazing with enough space and the building looked nice and cozy (Szwarc, 2005 p.52).

The company had invested a lot on technology and the customer service agent referred us to the website as a very important source of information and as such we could transact every thing using the website. The company also demonstrated a lot of emphasis on quality and many products were mostly described using their quality and benefits rather than prices.

A visit to the two places therefore presented different scenarios in terms of customer service although the two companies seem to offer similar services, their approach to customer service was very different. While Thomson demonstrated excellent customer services in their stores, Thomas Cook had a lot of emphasis on the use of technology to achieve excellent customer service hence most of their services we offered through the online platform in the websites and subscribed e-mail services.

Using call centers:

The other approach used to demonstrate the different customer quality was calls to the call center. We had to use this since many customers also prefer to make direct calls in order to get information. Both Thomas Cook and Thomson run very robust call centers across UK within their subsidiaries. This time round we had to change the type of inquiry we were making to avoid cases of suspicion. Our inquiry was about a three-day visit to Switzerland and Italy and was looking for the best destinations, hotels and other activities that were on offer. Our aim of using the call center was to evaluate how they would treat such cases with the following key aspects:

Time taken to respond to calls, general tone of the call centre agent, the information provided and how they try to solve the problem as well as additional information the provide. My friend called Thomson while I called Thomas cook.

Thomson:

The call center agent responded to this call within two seconds and was very jovial in responding to our call. They took time to listen to our queries and on the issue of destinations; we were able to get a whole range with different grades depending on the economic status of the consumer. We got information on prices (Szwarc, 2005 p.52). A part from giving a whole range of information about the destinations, the call center agent was able to give more information regarding preparations and the other requirements for the destinations. The call center agent was able to make follow up calls within four hours to ask if we needed further assistance to plan for our journey. This was a wonderful experience as we were able to get all the information, we needed from the call center.

Thomas Cook:

The call center agent took three seconds to respond to our calls but insisted to know who was calling before addressing our queries. Upon identifying me the call center agent explained to me all the information and quoted the prices for each but was not willing to give further information until we make a commitment to take up one of the offers. We did not get a follow up call.

The above exercise has clearly demonstrated how mystery Shoppers technique can be used to evaluate customer service experience in an organization to enable a firm make more informed decisions regarding customer services and improve the quality of its services. It particularly helps in evaluation of areas such as website shopping experience, customer service, competitor’s activities, employee commitment and honesty to the firm (Szwarc,2005 p.52)

Mystery shopper’s technique has the following benefits:

This method provides standardized data that can aid in evaluating key performance indicators within the organizational divisions.

The strategy is able to provide critical feedback on operational gaps and training requirements hence the management will be able to respond to a specific problem.

The method provides the most cost-effective strategy to collect data that can be used across multiple organizational streams over a long period of time.

Despite the stated benefits mystery shopping technique just like any other marketing research strategy is affected by the geographical locations of the selected shoppers and hence there is need to take a sample of shoppers that reflects the entire market. The time in which mystery shopping is executed also affects the outcomes. Peak hour shopping may paint a good picture on a company which is otherwise quite for many hours (Stucker,2005 p.42-50).

Recommendations:

The information that we have been able to gather from the two companies have clearly demonstrated the gaps that the two companies have and they can be used to improve the quality of customer service. Although the two companies have different marketing strategies, the key customer service variables in the hospitality industry must be adhered to hence the data can help the two organizations improve on the quality of customer service.

 

 

References:

Bryman,A. & Bell,E.(2007).Business research methods.2nd ed. Oxford [u.a.] : Oxford

Univ. Press.

Stucker,C.(2005).The mystery shopper's manual : how to get paid to shop in your favorite

stores, eat in your favorite restaurants, and more!. Sugar Land, TX : Special Interests

Pub.

Thomascook.com.(2012).Thomascook.Accessed 29 April 2012.From http://www.thomascook.com/

Thomson.(2012).Thomson. Accessed 29 April 2012.From http://www.thomson.co.uk/.

Szwarc, P.(2005).Researching customer satisfaction & loyalty : how to find out what

people really think. London : Kogan Page.

 

 

 

 

 

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